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Statue of the Yule Cat in Reykjavik

A festive feline: Iceland's terrifying Christmas Yule Cat

Image: Statue of the Yule Cat on display in Reykjavik, Iceland | (CC BY-4.0)

As with many other Christmas customs, the Icelandic Yule Cat’s origins lie in distant, interwoven timelines. Through ancient tales of troll cats and familiars, the Icelandic Yule Cat as we know him/her today arrived in 1932 through the medium of print. Jólin koma, meaning ‘Christmas is Coming’, by poet, author and erstwhile politician, Jóhannes úr Kötlum, includes a poem entitled Jólakötturinn, or The Christmas Cat.

From the moment it became verse, the legend of the Christmas, or Yule Cat, is re-told every Christmas. It speaks of an enormous cat prowling about town eating any poor soul who didn’t receive a new item of clothing for Christmas. If you were wealthy, this wasn’t an issue, but the impoverished and their offspring might not be so lucky. As such, the Yule Cat acted as an incentive for the less well-off to work hard to ensure that everyone has something new and warm to wear for Christmas and so avoid being eaten by a ferocious feline. Terrified children would be on their best behaviour to allow the grown-ups to focus on their industry or face the horrific consequences of everyone being devoured by a monstrous cat.

Ensuring kids behave themselves around Christmas, is pretty much standard practice in folklore. Threatening everyone -kids, parents, friends, neighbours etc- for not being properly attired at Christmas, with a furious feline, isn’t. However, this tale does have practical advantages. It can get as low as minus 10 in Reykjavík over winter, so it would seem that if the cat didn’t get you, the freezing climate would. In this respect, we can see the Christmas Cat as a simple reminder to wrap up warm. But the tale of the Icelandic Yule Cat is only a portion of a greater story.

Everyone knows a wicked cat needs a wicked mistress. So step up, Grýla, a revolting, cave-dwelling, beggar who resembles ‘a witch’, or La Befana if you’re really up to speed with your Christmas folklore but, most notably, she’s a giantess who eats naughty children. The character described first appears around the 13th Century as a part of Norse mythology (she later became associated with the festive season) where she lives with her lazy husband, Leppalúð, and her sons, the Yule Lads.

Latterly, the story of Grýla took on influences from European Christmas traditions in which a benevolent figure such as Santa Claus is offset by a mischievous other e.g. Krampus. In this new iteration, Grýla is the wicked protagonist and the thirteen Yule Lads are the ones dishing out the candy and gifts to the Icelandic kiddiwinks, in the thirteen days before Christmas. But up until the 19th Century, the Yule Lads were barely human, indeed they were sufficiently scary to warrant stories about them being legally banned in 1746: one shudders to think of the traumatic events that led up to that. Fast forward 200 years, the Yule Boys have transformed into warm, avuncular figures most of us would recognise as lightweight Santa Clauses

So -except for the year off in 1746- spare a thought for Icelandic kids before 1930. There’s no mention of any rewards for being good here, just the threat of them with the whole family -plus friends and neighbours- at risk of being harassed by thirteen inhuman brothers, eaten by a revolting giantess or mauled by an enormous cat

And the danger of hyperthermia.

Gleðileg jól!